Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 06 July 2022

Cheke, Sir Johnfree


Cheke, Sir Johnfree

  • Alan Bryson

Sir John Cheke (1514–1557)

attrib. Lodovico Leoni, c. 1555

© Copyright The British Museum

Cheke, Sir John (1514–1557), humanist, royal tutor, and administrator, was born on 16 June 1514 in a house on the corner of Market Hill and Petty Cury in Cambridge, the son of Peter Cheke (d. 1530), administrator, of Cambridge, and his wife, Agnes (d. 1549), vintner, daughter of William Duffield of Cambridge. Peter Cheke moved to Cambridge from Mottistone on the Isle of Wight by 1504 and was employed by Cambridge University, possibly through the influence of the high steward, Sir Richard Empson, as an esquire bedell in divinity by 1509. This important office provided a comfortable income of about £35 per annum. His close association with William Pykerell, another esquire bedell, probably through attendance at Great St Mary's, Cambridge's most important church, helped his career and he married his colleague's widow in 1513. Dr William Butts was among those with whom he carried out church duties and the physician's association with the family continued after Peter Cheke's death.

Education, king's scholar, and regius professor, 1514–1544

John Cheke had a half-brother, John Pykerell (1498/9–1539), and five sisters, including Mary (d. 1544) and Anne (b. 1530?). He was taught grammar by John Morgan, brother of Richard Morgan, vicar of Great Bardfield in Essex. In autumn 1526 he entered St John's College, Cambridge, the formal election taking place in November, when he was expected to sing and recite Latin before the master, Dr Nicholas Metcalfe. His principal tutor was George Day—'my bringer upp, and at his hand I gate [got] an entrie to some skill in learning'—to whom he was always indebted, if not always grateful ( BL, Add. MS 46367, fol. 9v). Cheke excelled at languages, particularly Latin and Greek. He was admitted a fellow of his college on 26 March 1529, proceeded BA on 31 March 1530, and commenced MA on 8 July 1533. He probably became a protestant during his early years at the university, although attendance at Great St Mary's with his mother may have been a decisive influence on his religion too. Peter Cheke fell ill and made his will on 7 January 1530, dying a few days later. He named Agnes Cheke, who was then a vintner in St Mary's parish, his sole executor, made various bequests, including giving £10 to each of his children, and directed that John Cheke should receive a legacy when he was twenty-one; his sisters, when nineteen.

Butts acted as Cheke's 'great friend, counsellor, and the encourager of his studies', having a somewhat paternal relationship with him ( Strype, 6). Cheke became a king's scholar without salary in 1534 and Butts spoke highly of him to Henry VIII, who granted him an exhibition in 1538 to aid his studies. A circle formed around him from about 1535, based on interest in the Erasmian pronunciation of Greek, in order to learn which Thomas Smith (with whom he was closely associated) and he studied Greek philology. He was from 1539 to 1540 the last master of the glomery or grammar, the first regius professor of Greek from 1540 to 1551, earning £40 per annum, and public orator from 1542 to 1546. Cheke lectured on Euripides, Herodotus, Homer, and Sophocles. He introduced improved teaching methods at St John's, Roger Ascham claiming that he laid new foundations for study there by encouraging his students to answer all questions by appeal to scripture and by teaching the best rhetorical methods. His bond with his student was very close but Ascham (whose writing did most to ensure Cheke's reputation as a great tutor) was always dependent on his goodwill and somewhat in awe of him. However, other accounts confirm that Cheke was an inspirational tutor, able to impart his learning and enthusiasm to his students, who felt bound to him by strong ties. Other notable students included William Bill, William Cecil (1520/21–1598), Thomas Chaloner, Edwin Sandys, and Thomas Wilson. They were taught to read mainly Aristotle and Plato, both to acquire greater proficiency in languages and to learn dialectic. Cheke believed in studying in their own language then imitating the great classical authors, leaving more informal reading to lesser Greek and Roman writings, and emphasizing mathematics as the basis for philosophy. His broad range of interests surprised even his highly educated peers.

Following Smith's and his investigations of Greek philology, Cheke then lectured on the new pronunciation of Greek but was admonished by the chancellor of the university, Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, who issued a decree on 1 June 1542 confirming the old pronunciation and laying down serious punishments for those who did not comply. Gardiner feared such innovation would instil restlessness and resistance to authority, dangerous things in the religious climate of the 1530s and 1540s. Having failed to persuade Gardiner of their position, Cheke and Smith backed down, although their pronunciation was subsequently adopted. Cheke's 'eager enthusiasm was contagious and was reinforced by a winsomeness of spirit which captured the admiration and affection of many members of the university' ( Hudson, 3). His circle was important because of the close relationship between academic training at Cambridge in the 1530s and 1540s and royal service under Edward VI and Elizabeth I. Smith and he wrote a dissertation on the king's marriage to Anne of Cleves in 1539. Cheke also dedicated other works to Henry, including his edition of two of St John Chrysostom's homilies, D. Joannis Chrysostomi homiliae duae (1543), the first book printed in England containing Greek. It was reissued in 1552 and 1553. His reward was appointment as a canon and prebendary of King Henry VIII College, Oxford, in May 1544 and an annuity of £26 13s. 4d. on the college's dissolution in 1545.

Royal tutor, 1544–1549

Cheke was confirmed as tutor to Prince Edward, on 7 July 1544, to teach him 'of toungues, of the scripture, of philosophie and all liberal sciences' ( BL, Cotton MS Nero C.x, fol. 11r). His appointment proved popular. He left Cambridge to live in the prince's household, which moved between royal residences in Hertfordshire at Ashridge and Hertford during the period 1544–7. Cheke continued to write and to publish, dedicating his translation of the Liber asceticus of St Maximus Abbas to the king in January 1546. His closest relationship was with his mother and he found it loving and calming. She looked out for opportunities at Cambridge during his absence at court and gave him what he described as,

warninge foresent me nowe of this likelihoode of dainger, for I woolde not for all that I ame worthe that through myne owne follie & ventringe to a place, I sholde be banished a fortnight or a month frome the court.

BL, Add. MS 46367, fol. 25r

Religion bound the two together, their letters being full of homilies and strongly protestant in tone. Cheke continued to play a role in university affairs, including helping revise the statutes of St John's in 1545. Along with Smith, he acted as a spokesman for Cambridge's interests at court, including assisting the university in 1546 over the king's order that all colleges make known the state of their finances. His old patron, Butts, died on 17 November 1545 and he wrote a Latin epitaph for him but was now able to procure patronage through others.

Cheke owed his appointment as tutor to Katherine Parr's patronage and acted as a principal adviser to Henry's sixth queen because of his close association with her almoner, Day. His initial role was to assist Richard Cox, who had been Edward's tutor since 1540 but who took a less active part in the prince's education from 1546. His friend Ascham aided Cheke in daily instruction of the royal classroom that included the children of leading courtiers. The curriculum was based on that Cheke taught at St John's, with the prince memorizing Latin passages from Erasmus and the Bible between 1544 and 1547 and learning Latin composition from March 1545 by writing letters to his family and intimate figures, like Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, and Cox. Edward began reading classical authors from early 1547, beginning with Cicero's Epistolae familiares and Justin's Latin summary of Greek history. He continued with Cicero during 1548, copying phrases and sentences from, among other works, De officiis and De amicitia, and from April began composing moral essays or orationes based on Greek aphorisms, a preliminary exercise in the study of rhetoric and a preparation for learning Greek itself. Studying Cicero was essential grounding for Edward because humanist scholars and politicians believed that a ruler's actions could and should be circumscribed by the counsel of his active councillors in court and parliament, who had a duty to persuade him to listen to advice 'in a spirit of “likeness and equality”' ( J. A. Guy, The rhetoric of counsel in early modern England, Tudor Political Culture, ed. D. E. Hoak, 1995, 294). Cheke began teaching the king dialectic in 1549, his pupil again using Cicero as a model but now developing his own ideas in Latin.

Courtier, 1547–1549

Cheke was promoted to gentleman of the privy chamber between 20 May, when he was styled ‘esquire’, and 1 October 1547, when he was returned as MP for Bletchingley in Surrey. Those selected to serve in the privy chamber could have a decisive influence. They were the king's most intimate attendants and could be used as a direct extension of royal power, acting, for example, as special messengers or agents. Cheke and Henry Sidney were particularly close to Edward. Cheke's intimacy stemmed from his role as tutor. According to John Strype, even after Edward's accession on 28 January 1547, Cheke was 'always at his elbow, both in his closet and in his chapel, and wherever else he went, to inform and teach him' ( Strype, 22). Besides Cox, Cheke, and Anthony Cooke, Edward's French tutor Jean Belmaine (1546–1559), Cheke's nephew by marriage and a fellow reformer, also exercised influence over the king. However, Cheke was the central figure in this circle about Edward and his outlook shaped the king's world-view within the cloistered environment of the privy chamber. The result was Edward's convinced, advanced protestantism, which can be traced in his schoolboy exercises; for example, his treatise in French on the papal supremacy written between December 1548 and August 1549. This outlook had an impact on the Reformation—as demonstrated by Diarmaid MacCulloch—especially regarding Edward's personal interventions over religious matters, including Princess Mary's right to private Catholic worship.

Cheke benefited initially from the goodwill of the lord protector, Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset. Somerset was also governor of Edward's person, giving him a special role in the king's upbringing. Therefore, it was important for him to cultivate good relations with the royal tutors, who were like-minded men with the important task of monitoring Edward's development. Cheke was part of the 'evangelical establishment' headed by the lord protector ( MacCulloch, 8). However, it is not known whether he was considered to be among what the imperial ambassador, François van der Delft, described as Somerset's 'private council', a body accused of governing the realm on the lord protector's behalf ( CSP Spain, 1547–9, 445). This social bond at court was heightened by Cheke's role as tutor to the heirs of Somerset and John Dudley, earl of Warwick. He was rewarded well, with grants of land and increased status, because Somerset wanted to maintain clientage relations through patronage. He received an annuity of £66 13s. 4d. from August 1547. On 21 October 1548 he bought for £738 the site of the college of Stoke by Clare, Suffolk, and other property valued at £21 15s. 8d. per annum. His return to parliament in October 1547 came through the patronage of Sir Thomas Cawarden, a prominent Surrey gentleman with strong court connections, a noted protestant, and a client of William Parr, marquess of Northampton. Cheke's parliamentary activities are thinly documented. However, the third reading of a bill touching praemunire was committed to him on 4 April 1552. He replaced the conservative Day as provost of King's College, Cambridge, on 9 October 1548 with a salary of £100, his election resulting from a mandamus from the crown dispensing with the usual qualifications that he should be a doctor, a priest, and on the foundation. Cheke certainly angled for the position and Ascham and Walter Haddon welcomed his appointment. He proved, however, to be an absentee provost, who was consequently less effective in executing his duties, although he did pay close attention to college finances.

Marital ties strengthened Cheke's association with the circle around Somerset. On 11 May 1547 he married Mary (1532/3–1616), daughter of Richard Hill of Hartley Wintney, Hampshire, and his wife, Elizabeth. Cheke considered this the most significant event for him of the year. Mary Hill was the stepdaughter of one of the leading privy councillors, Sir John Mason (c. 1503–1566), and as early as 1539 her mother had been trying to place her in Princess Elizabeth's household. She was probably a member of Elizabeth's household and was one of her intimates by 1548. Cheke's relationship with his wife was initially turbulent, partly because he was demanding and she had 'a strong affection and a weake reason', was 'feoble headded and strong harted', and committed thoughtless mistakes ( BL, Add. MS 46367, fol. 10r). She was young, rather carefree, and less devout, and did not manage their domestic affairs well. Despite their problems, he promised to be patient and gentle, and clearly loved her. His letters to her (BL, Add. MS 46367) reflect his attitude about obedience, in which he makes a distinction between the commonwealth whose members need to be restrained with laws and the more desirable one whose members regulate their own behaviour. They had three sons, including Henry Cheke (c. 1548–1586) and the soldier John Cheke (c.1550–1580), and another child. The marriage of Cecil to Cheke's sister, Mary, on 8 August 1541, was significant because both were St John's men and because Cecil became Somerset's secretary in 1548. As master of requests from about January 1548, Cecil sat at the centre of a distinctly protestant patronage network which benefited, among others, Smith and Cheke. Cheke also turned to Sir John Thynne, Somerset's steward, having 'good hope of your help' (probably to acquire the provostship), as well as petitioning the duke directly for patronage ( Longleat, Wilts., Thynne MS 2, fol. 26r). He participated in the visitations of the colleges and chantries in 1548, including the college of Stoke, making a substantial amount of money in the process. Cheke was appointed to the visitations of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge on 8 November 1548.

Despite his political and administrative roles since 1547, his standing was threatened because of Thomas Seymour, Baron Seymour of Sudeley's interference in the privy chamber, which disrupted the unity of the ruling party. When discussing it with the Italian physician and astrologer, Girolamo Cardano, in autumn 1552, Cheke dated his near fall from grace to 11 January 1549 (the day Seymour refused to attend Somerset in order to explain his behaviour). Seymour initially approached Cheke at Whitehall Palace during the opening session of the first parliament (November–December 1547), attempting to procure his assistance in getting Edward to write a 'bil' endorsing his claim to be governor ( TNA: PRO, SP 10/6/26, M. fol. 68r). Cheke knew that the king was forbidden to sign anything without Somerset's counter-signature and would not permit Edward to do it. Later, the king discussed the situation with Cheke privately, agreeing with his course of action. Seymour petitioned Edward personally after this conversation but the king refused to hear his suit. He gave Cheke £40 at Christmas 1547 (which Cheke accepted reluctantly), telling him that he could pass half to the king. By the end of 1548, his relations with Somerset worsening rapidly, Seymour, who was lord admiral, again attempted to use Cheke and other members of the privy chamber to persuade Edward to support his political activities, particularly his desire to be governor. He argued with Somerset over the running of the admiralty and asked John Fowler, one of the grooms of the privy chamber, to discuss the issue with the king and to paint the lord protector in a bad light. Fowler thought that Cheke and Thomas Wroth, a gentleman usher of the privy chamber, were inveigled by Seymour too, saying that the lord admiral 'tolde me he wolde pray Master Cheke to breke with the king to, and so I think he did, and I reken Master Wrothe Likewise' ( TNA: PRO, SP 10/6/10, M. fol. 25r).

Cheke was concerned about being implicated in Seymour's factious activities, concluding his holograph deposition of 20 February 1549, 'and nether afore nor after I hard of the Lord Admirals partie ani more of this bil' to be governor ( TNA: PRO, SP 10/6/26, M. fol. 68r). However, Edward accepted money from Seymour, which he disbursed among his favourite courtiers, including £20 'delivered to his highnes to give to Master Cheke at sundry tymes' ( BL, Harley MS 249, fol. 31v). Cheke's troubles mounted. In a letter to Anne Seymour, duchess of Somerset, of 27 January 1549, he apologized on behalf of his wife, whose gaucheness displeased her. He hoped Mary Cheke could be excused for her inexperience because she was pregnant. It is interesting that he concluded his letter in terms of clientage:

Onli I beseche your grace and that moost humblie, to extende your gracioys favor so far above the requirirs desert, towards mi wife and me both, as mi good minde towards your grace which is equal with your gretest clientes, is above mine habilitee, which is undernith your commen state of wel minded.

BL, Lansdowne MS 2, fol. 85r

Perhaps Cheke hoped that this would not only please the duchess's ego but also solidify his identification as one of her husband's adherents. She took umbrage with the wives of men who displeased or opposed Somerset. Mary Cheke was, however, complicit in her husband's actions, receiving 'commendayons' to Princess Elizabeth from Seymour, which she passed to Katherine Astley during the autumn or winter of 1548 ( TNA: PRO, SP 10/6/22, M. fol. 57r).

Surprisingly, Fowler's deposition (January 1549) was not too damning regarding Cheke, who could not be removed in the wake of Seymour's fall because of his close relationship with the king, although Cooke may now have assisted him more fully as royal tutor. Cheke went to Cambridge about March but does not appear to have been in disgrace. He was there to see his mother, who was dying (her will was proved on 6 April). The visitation of Cambridge took place from 6 May to 5 July. That for Oxford is less well recorded but the new statutes were virtually the same for both universities and Cheke's hand can clearly be detected in them. Essentially, the aim of the visitation was to test religious conformity, reform the curriculum, bringing it more into line with humanist educational thinking, and to promote the study of civil law by dissolving failing colleges and founding a new one at each university specializing in training civilians. However, Smith's project to advance civil law was a failure and it is uncertain if Cheke supported it. Absence from court made Cheke 'meri', despite bereavement. He wrote to his close friend and kinsman, Peter Osborne (1521–1592), on 30 May, describing how 'I fele the caulme of quietnes, being tost afore with storms, and have felt of ambitions bitter gal, poisoned with hope of hap' ( BL, Lansdowne MS 2, fol. 74r). He continued to involve himself closely in religious debate and innovations, attending a disputation on transubstantiation at Cambridge on 24 June.

Cheke's attack on the rebellious English commons during summer 1549, The Hurte of Sedicion, recommended him again to Somerset. It struck a chord and was published twice in 1549 and reissued in 1569, 1576, and 1641, all crisis years for the English polity. The work is an anti-sedition tract that is representative of the mindset of the protestant court party, especially in its reaction to the death of Edmund Sheffield, first Baron Sheffield, on 31 July 1549, which was regarded as an attack on the social order. Sheffield was portrayed as the epitome of the Tudor aristocrat, set by God to rule the commonwealth under the king for the good of the community. The book defended the regime's religious policy, which was formulated by the king, privy councillors, and parliament, and attacked rebellion against Edward as rebellion against God, stating that subjects should be obedient and refuting claims that the rebels 'pretende, that partelye for goddes cause, and partelye for the commune welthes sake, ye do a ryse'. The rebels were accused of being Catholics and of changing 'youre obedience from a kynge to a kett [Robert Kett]' but would be punished by God. The work is sometimes incoherent, lacking sufficient concrete examples. The language can be monotonous or almost hysterical in places, as when Cheke accused the commons of being beasts, fit to be beaten, but is, in the main, rich and persuasive: the rebels did 'stir up uprores of people, hurly burlies of vagabundes, routes of robbers'; and stole 'to fat up youre sedition' ( J. Cheke, The Hurte of Sedicion howe Greveous it is to a Commune-Welth, 1549, sigs. A3v, A7r, B8r, C1v).

Royal tutor and courtier, 1549–1553

Surprisingly, in July 1549 Cheke was elected Lady Margaret professor of divinity at Cambridge, replacing the conservative Dr William Glyn, and he appears to have had the stipend backdated. As was the case with his appointment as provost, on the king's instructions the statutory requirement that he be a priest with a theology degree was waived. His inaugural lecture was probably on Psalm 119, verses 1–8 (St John's College, Cambridge, D107.3, fols. 235r–257r). Until recently thought to be a work by Dr John Redman, Richard Rex has shown that Cheke was the most likely author, and it typifies his biblical moralism. Cheke returned to court in autumn 1549, giving evidence against Edmund Bonner, bishop of London, in September and attending the third session of parliament from 4 November. Despite his association with the lord protector, he was retained as a gentleman of the privy chamber by Warwick after Somerset was overthrown on 13 October. Warwick increased the membership of the privy chamber to thirty-seven by 1552–3, using these men to close off the privy lodgings and sheltering the king from outside influence, while rewarding them with the close proximity he denied to others. The character of this circle was firmly protestant and these men discussed and formulated policy. The Cambridge connection was central. Cheke was named among the 32-man commission chosen in October 1549 to examine the ecclesiastical laws and was one of the eight divines who formulated new ones, their commission being renewed on 10 February 1552. Haddon and he then translated these new laws into elegant Latin as the Reformatio legum ecclesiasticarum (which was not published until 1571). It was Cheke's Latin translation of a new version of the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) that Pietro Martire Vermigli (known as Peter Martyr) read and critiqued in 1550. The two men discussed the state of religion in England and Cheke allayed Peter Martyr's fears by pointing out Edward's growing appreciation of his power as supreme head of the church, telling him that the king would order the bishops to accept further reform. Cheke also discussed religious and social reform with Martin Bucer, who became a good friend. He continued to have a close hand in changes at Cambridge and seems to have produced, virtually single-handed, statutes for Trinity College (8 November 1552), based on those in use at St John's. The first year was devoted to studying Euclid's Elements, followed by dialectic, the second year Aristotle's logic, the third year his Ethics, Politics, and Rhetoric, and the final year his natural philosophy. All this was to be read in Greek, while exercises were conducted in Greek and Latin, modelled on Demosthenes, Plato, and Cicero.

Cheke began teaching Edward Greek by mid-1549. He used his preferred method of double translation from Greek into Latin and back again and the key texts studied included Aristotle's Ethics, Rhetoric, and Politics and Plato's Republic. He encouraged his pupil to record current events in his 'Chronicle' (BL, Cotton MS Nero C.x, fols. 10r–83r), perhaps as a means for the king to familiarize himself with royal government. The entries become fuller after Somerset's fall, the king getting his information from his secretaries and the clerks of the privy council, but there is nothing to suggest that Cheke colluded in a process whereby Edward received doctored accounts of events in order to bolster Warwick's regime. The 'Chronicle' is generally remarkably concurrent with the state papers, which were near to hand if the king ever wished to consult them. Edward's rhetorical training under Cheke mirrored his religious tuition. He considered questions regarding passages from the Bible in the same way as passages from classical authors. He was also taught to argue in utramque partem by using the rhetorical exercises of Aphthonius's Progymnasmata. These were argued pro and contra to find a solution to a problem. Although the principal secretary, Sir William Petre, was involved with Edward in these rhetorical exercises, Cheke, who taught his St John's students this method, also taught the king. He ensured that Edward applied rhetoric to statecraft, as when in July 1549 the king considered the glories of war in one week and the horrors of it in the next, at a time when rebellion was rife and the realm was fighting in Scotland and France. Arguing in utramque partem was ideally suited to balanced political debate and fitted well with the king's education, which was concerned with teaching him to avoid the excesses of his father. Cheke also saw that Edward received a strong grounding in mathematics and astronomy, inviting Cambridge fellows to court to teach the king.

On 25 November and 3 December 1551 a two-part debate on the sacrament was held at the London homes of Cecil and Richard Morison, presaging the second Book of Common Prayer (1552). As an academic disputation on transubstantiation, based on the dialectic procedure used in university debate, it involved the Cambridge circle, men who were now entrenched in the ascendant court party: Cecil, Cheke, Robert Horne, dean of Durham, David Whitehead, chaplain to Katherine Brandon, dowager duchess of Suffolk, Edmund Grindal, one of the king's chaplains, and others. The issue of transubstantiation was central to the English Reformation and ecclesiastical polity but Strype described the debates as 'two disputations, or rather friendly conferences', which somewhat masks their importance ( Strype, 69). The two disputants on the Catholic side in the first meeting were Dr John Feckenham and John Young, who were under arrest at the time. They were joined at the second debate by Thomas Watson, a member of the old St John's group, with whom Ascham and Cheke discussed Aristotle's and Horace's De arte poetica. The meetings of 1551 were significant contributions to a major theological issue, and quite intense debates that confirmed strong bonds of friendship within the St John's circle. Cecil and Cheke turned to Calvinism for new ideas, supporting the printer John Day, who was publishing translations of Jean Calvin and the works of Thomas Becon in the late 1540s. Cheke was almost certainly involved in working on the second Book of Common Prayer. During autumn 1552 he and Cecil played an important consultative role in the formulation and composition of the forty-two articles of religion (1553), the doctrinal basis of the church, especially in how best to put them to the king. Cheke also began translating the New Testament into English between 1551 and 1553, trying to purify the language by using words whose etymology was Saxon rather than Latin or French, giving the work a 'colloquial bluntness' ( Needham, 1.361). This approach differed from his earlier use of English, which was full of words of foreign etymology and not always clear in style or meaning. By 1557 he could write to Sir Thomas Hoby that 'our own tung shold be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangeled with borrowing of other tunges' ( Shrank, 184). Interestingly, Cheke encouraged students to think about their English style when doing double translation from Latin and permitted declamations at Trinity College in English in order to teach eloquence in the vernacular too. It was probably Cheke who made the 1553 Latin translation of Cranmer's A defence of the true and Catholike doctrine of the sacrament of the body and bloud of our saviour Christ (1550), a work that propounded the archbishop's mature views on the eucharist. Again, Cheke's clear and elegant Latin was ideal for the international audience at which the work was aimed.

In spring 1550 John Hooper emphasized the unity and abilities of the protestant privy councillors and courtiers, especially Warwick, Henry Grey, third marquess of Dorset, and his family, Northampton, and Cheke. In reward for royal service, Cheke was granted lands in Lincolnshire and Suffolk valued at £118 per annum on 3 January 1550. On 12 April, like other members of Warwick's court party, including Cooke and Wroth, he was licensed to retain fifty men. This may have been partly in response to fear of unrest during the summer but was almost certainly also a means for Warwick to maintain control. Between 1550 and 1553 'the court must have resembled an armed camp' ( D. Loades, The Tudor Court, 1986, 92). Cheke's annuity of £66 13s. 4d. was cancelled on 6 May 1551, when he was granted land and property in Essex, Hertfordshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Staffordshire, and Suffolk valued at £192 per annum. (He received another grant of land in Cambridgeshire, Essex, Huntingdon, and Suffolk valued at £100 per annum in May 1553.) Cheke participated in the visitation of Eton in September 1551 before returning to court. Warwick strengthened his position on 11 October with an elevation to the peerage and a series of promotions. Among other grants, while making himself duke of Northumberland, Cecil, Cheke, and Sidney were knighted. Cheke's influence, wealth, and status was at its height, with his landed estate assessed as worth £240 per annum in 1552 and his entire annual income said by Mason to be £600 by 1553. However, he fell dangerously ill of the sweating sickness in May 1552 and did not expect to recover, petitioning for George Day's release from custody (which was achieved) and counselling the king. Edward prayed for him and Cheke's health began to rally by early July. He did not return to his office of tutor but was appointed one of the chamberlains of the exchequer for life on 12 September. This office originally gave custody, under the lord treasurer, of the receipts but had become a valuable sinecure by the 1550s. Cheke's commitment to scholarship and religious reform were as strong as ever, as when between 1552 and 1553 he attempted to preserve John Leland's manuscript collection for the king's library or when he participated in autumn 1552 in a public disputation at Cambridge on Christ's descent into hell. He also remained a prominent courtier, accompanying the king on his progress to the south-west between July and September 1552.

Principal secretary, 1553

An anonymous French source reported that the 'precepteur maistre', perhaps Cheke, or Thomas Goodrich, bishop of Ely, moved the king to exclude Princess Mary from the succession ( Bibliothèque Nationale, fonds français 15888, fol. 225r). If true, this could partly explain why Mary I was so belligerent towards Cheke and had him arrested on 15 May 1555, although the main reason was his involvement in the anti-Catholic propaganda produced on the continent. John ab Ulmis certainly regarded Cheke as having marked influence over Northumberland, whose letters from 1552 contain Latin aphorisms much favoured by court humanists. Cheke was intimately connected with Northumberland's regime by the end of Edward's reign, having been appointed during pleasure as one of the principal secretaries on 2 June 1553 with a salary of £100 per annum. This was possibly as a result of Cecil's absence since April but Cheke had been considered for the position as early as January, suggesting he may have been intended to replace Petre, who wanted to retire. This was the only time during the sixteenth century when there were three principal secretaries at once. Cheke found himself in an extremely difficult situation because he was left to carry out secretarial business during the succession crisis. Despite his efforts to procure the alteration to the succession through his influence at court, on the privy council, and in the counties, Northumberland was still unprepared when Edward died on 6 July. He had hoped to summon parliament to change the succession by statute, which might have allowed the privy council to gauge support among the local élite. Mary sent a signet letter to the privy council on 9 July, asserting her title, reminding them of the legitimate succession, demanding their allegiance, and promising to pardon them if they issued her proclamation. The privy council reacted on 10 July by issuing the proclamation of Lady Jane Grey's accession. They also replied to Mary's letter, rejecting her claim and telling her that Jane had been invested as queen. This reply was written by Cheke and signed by most of the privy council. On 19 July Cheke wrote the privy council's letter to Richard Rich, first Baron Rich, who was lord lieutenant of Essex, asking him to win the county's support for Jane against Mary ( BL, Lansdowne MS 3, fols. 50r–51v). Later that day Cheke was present in Cheapside when Mary was proclaimed queen.

Cheke helped rally the spirits of his friends. Cecil's account of his part in the succession crisis, including his plan to leave England, records how Cheke asked him for his 'satisfaction to rede a dialoge of Plato where Socrates being in prison was offred to escape and flee and yet he wold not'. Cecil 'redd the Dialoge whose reasons in dede did stay me' ( BL, Lansdowne MS 104, fols. 1v–2r). Cheke's name was deleted from the list of those to receive mourning black for the king's funeral and he was placed under house arrest on 26 July before being sent to the Tower of London on 27 or 28 July. On 12 August, with the vice-chamberlain and captain of the guard, Sir John Gates, he was indicted and found guilty of treason; the trial documents shed interesting light on their alleged activities. They were accused of taking possession of the Tower, with Cranmer, on 10 July, attempting to bestow the royal title on Jane, recognizing her as queen, and writing letters and proclamations, which were printed, proclaiming her. Cheke probably remained at the Tower, with Jane and Lord Guildford Dudley, throughout the succession crisis because the secretary normally stayed close by the monarch. Gates and Cheke were particularly unfortunate because they oversaw the clerical side of Northumberland's coup, attempting to secure Jane's succession by procuring the support of the élite through the normal means of communication (proclamations and privy seal letters). Northumberland was forced to play the part of mouthpiece for 'the true catholyke ffathe' during his scaffold speech on 22 August, but he reiterated his claim that the coup was not 'all to gether of myne owne procuryng' and had been 'incensyd by others whom I praye god to pardon for I wyll name nor accuse anye man here' ( BL, Cotton MS Titus B.ii, fol. 144v). He had been moved to alter the succession by the protestant circle at court and by his clientele (particularly Gates, Goodrich, and Cheke).

Last years, 1553–1557

Already by mid-September there were signs of a thaw as the queen provided £50 towards Cheke's living expenses. He was released in spring 1554, obtained licence to go abroad, leaving his wife and family behind, and was pardoned on 28 April. He and Cooke reached Strasbourg on 14 April and then travelled to Basel, where the following year he published the letters from his earlier dispute with Gardiner concerning the correct pronunciation of Greek. Cheke arrived in Padua on 10 July 1554, writing to Mason two days later to tell him of his intention to learn Italian and study civil law. His financial position was weak, though, and he lectured on Demosthenes to make money. Wilson attended the lecture and used it as the basis of his own English translation of Demosthenes. Reflecting the interest of the Cambridge circle in numismatics and portrait medals, it was probably Lodovico Leoni who executed the head and shoulder medallion of Cheke in Padua at this time. It portrayed Cheke with short hair and a long beard, dressed like a Roman citizen. Two other portraits painted between about 1545 and 1555 confirm Cheke's appearance (slim and delicately handsome), while also reflecting his taste. Cheke was forced to return to Strasbourg by 20 October 1554 and Mason petitioned the queen in the following month to support Mary Cheke and her children. He said that Cheke's 'follye' had reduced his income to 'lesse than nothing' ( TNA: PRO, SP 69/5, fol. 91r). Cheke's financial problems were compounded by chronic indebtedness, amounting to about £1200 by 1554. Attempts at retrenchment during Edward's reign, which he felt shameful, had failed to dent the problem. Despite his poor finances, Cheke was dangerously committed to protestant opposition to the Marian regime. He probably went to Emden in 1555 to supervise republication of his Latin translation of Cranmer's Defence (1557), remaining there to organize the protestant propaganda campaign against Marian religious reform and using his contacts to circulate its tracts in England. This, and his association with the conspirator Sir Peter Carew, made Mary and Philip of Spain suspicious of him. Cheke returned to Strasbourg later in 1556, and it seems to have been his main residence between 1554 and 1556.

Many modern accounts of the role of William Paget, first Baron Paget, and Mason in Cheke's and Carew's apprehension owe much to John Ponet's slanted account in his A Shorte Treatise of Politike Power (1556). However, the Venetian ambassador, Federico Badoer, also believed in the complicity of Paget and Mason, claiming that they offered Cheke a safe conduct to visit his wife, who was in Antwerp. This seems doubtful. Paget continued on good terms with Cheke and Cecil after Somerset's first fall. On 3 September 1551 he wrote to Cecil concerning timber belonging to King's College that he wanted Cheke to sell him, ending 'your harty frend most assuredly' ( University of Wales, Plas Newydd, Anglesey and Bangor, Plas Newydd MS 2, fol. 14r). Mary ignored his advice not to arrest Cheke in the wake of the succession crisis, while his friendship towards him endured. Paget assisted Cheke financially on a number of occasions, both openly and through Mason, until Cheke left England. It was this relationship that drew suspicion on Paget from the queen, but he does not appear to have procured Cheke's arrest as a means of proving his Catholic credentials; his protestantism remained quite overt. Mason's alleged involvement is also problematic because of his close relationship with Cheke. It is more likely that Carew agreed to betray Cheke in return for his pardon. Both men were entertained by Paget and Mason early in May 1556, before being arrested between Mechelen and Antwerp on the 15th, 'clapped in to a carte, their legges, armes and bodies tied with halters to the body of the carte, and so caried to the sea side', bundled onto a ship, and conveyed to England, where they were placed in the Tower on 2 June ( Ponet, sig. I6v).

The reason given for Cheke's arrest was his failure to return to England by the time specified in his licence, but the real motive was to silence him. Initially he refused to recant. However, his resolve weakened when Feckenham was sent to persuade him and the alternative prospect of burning was put to him. He submitted after further discussions with Cardinal Reginald Pole and Feckenham and affirmed his belief in the real presence. Cheke wrote to Mary on 15 July 1556, promising to obey her law and to practise Catholicism, and begging to be spared a public recantation. This was not enough for her and he was forced to make a humiliating recantation before the court on 4 October, providing the Marian regime with a great propaganda coup. This shocked protestants, including Martyr. Cheke was then released from prison. His estates were reorganized, with much of his freehold property becoming reversionary, but he was compensated with a grant on 13 April 1557 of freehold lands in Devon and Somerset valued at £308 11s. per annum, making him a very wealthy gentleman.

Cheke made his will on 13 September 1557, the day he died. It is brief and his wife and Osborne were appointed executors, while 'my deerely beloved' Mason was overseer. They were instructed to carry out the detailed provisions made before the will but not recorded in it. Mary Cheke is known to have received plate and jewels valued at £666 13s. 4d. and £533 6s. 8d. respectively, as well as household goods worth at least £400. Cheke bequeathed his 'soule to allmightie god my maker and Redeamer assured that it cannot perishe that is comitted to hym' ( TNA: PRO, PROB 11/40, sig. 2). The continued education of his heir, Henry Cheke, was important to him and the boy's tutor, William Ireland, was provided with a £10 annuity. Cheke probably died of influenza, rather than of grief (as Strype thought), in Osborne's house in Wood Street, London. He was buried nearby on 16 September, in the north chapel of the chancel of St Alban, Wood Street. Haddon provided a Latin inscription when Cheke's monument was erected. Mary Cheke, who became a gentlewoman of Elizabeth I's privy chamber, married Henry Macwilliam of Stambourne Hall, Essex, by 14 December 1558. She did not die until 30 November 1616.

With Sir Thomas Elyot and Ascham, Cheke laid the foundation of classical idioms in English literature. He advanced humanist learning at Cambridge to new heights, promoted biblical humanism and Greek with great vigour and breadth of knowledge, and left an enduring legacy in his students. He was also at the forefront of the great religious debates of the early Reformation. Cheke was devout, moral, and could be moderate and liberally minded, but was prone to melancholy, and sometimes pessimism. Well known as being gentle, almost timid at times, he was also subtly charismatic and this combination was a large part of his personal appeal. However, he was also sometimes petulant, self-righteous, and self-pitying. The praise bestowed on him by contemporaries such as Ascham, Nicholas Carr, Nicholas Ridley, bishop of London, and Thomas Lever, was extraordinary. Haddon believed Cheke 'was not one among many but one who towers over all'; Cecil thought him 'one of the sweetest flowers that hath come in in my time' ( The Poetry of Walter Haddon, ed. C. J. Lees, 1967, 19; E. W. Perry, Under Four Tudors, being the Story of Matthew Parker, 2nd edn, 1964, 98).


  • S. L. Adams, Elizabeth I: the outcast who became England's queen (2005)
  • J. D. Alsop, ‘Sir John Cheke, administrator in the Tudor state’, unpublished paper, 1979
  • S. Alford, Kingship and politics in the reign of Edward VI (2002)
  • APC, 1547–50, 1552–4
  • R. Ascham, The scholemaster, or, Plaine and perfite way of teachyng children, to understand, write, and speake, the Latin tong (1570)
  • A. Bryson, ‘“The speciall men in every shere”: the Edwardian regime, 1547–1553’, PhD diss., U. St Andr., 2001
  • BL, Add. MS 6113, fols. 129r–131r; Lansdowne MSS 2, fols. 44rv, 74r–v, 85r–86v, 138rv, 197r–198v; 3, fols. 2r–v, 3r–4v, 5r–6v, 50r–51v, 57r–58v, 77r–78v, 115rv, 130r–131v; 4, fol. 153r; 104, fols. 1v–2r; 1236, fols. 24r–25v
  • CPR, 1547–58
  • C. H. Cooper and J. W. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, 5 vols. (1842–1908)
  • H. S. Davies, ‘Sir John Cheke and the translation of the Bible’, Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, new ser., 5 (1952), 1–12
  • M. Dowling, Humanism in the age of Henry VIII (1986)
  • F. G. Emmison, ‘A plan of Edward VI and Secretary Petre for reorganizing the privy council's work, 1552–1553’, BIHR, 31 (1958), 203–10
  • S. R. Gammon, Statesman and schemer: William, first Lord Paget, Tudor minister (1973)
  • C. H. Garrett, The Marian exiles: a study in the origins of Elizabethan puritanism (1938)
  • W. S. Hudson, The Cambridge connection and the Elizabethan settlement of 1559 (Durham, NC, 1981)
  • S. E. James, Kateryn Parr: the making of a queen (1999)
  • Literary remains of King Edward the Sixth, ed. J. G. Nichols, 2 vols., Roxburghe Club, 75 (1857)
  • J. K. McConica, English humanists and Reformation politics under Henry VIII and Edward VI (1965)
  • D. MacCulloch, Tudor church militant: Edward VI and the protestant Reformation (1999)
  • P. S. Needham, ‘Sir John Cheke at Cambridge and court’, PhD diss., Harvard U., 2 vols., 1971
  • J. G. Nichols, ed., ‘Some additions to the biographies of Sir John Cheke and Sir Thomas Smith’, Archaeologia, 38 (1860), 98–127
  • court of king's bench, crown side, baga de secretis, TNA: PRO, KB 8/22, mems. 10–12
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/40, sig. 2
  • J. Ponet, A shorte treatise of politike power, and of the true obedience which subjectes owe to kynges and other civile governours (Strasbourg, 1556)
  • C. Shrank, ‘Rhetorical constructions of a national community: the role of the king's English in mid-Tudor writing’, Communities in early modern England: networks, place, rhetoric, ed. A. Shepard and P. Withington (2000), 180–98
  • J. Strype, The life of the learned Sir John Cheke, kt: first instructor, afterwards secretary of state, to King Edward VI (1821)
  • TNA: PRO, chancery, patent rolls, C 66/917
  • R. Rex, ‘Lady Margaret Beaufort and her professorships: 1502–1559’, in P. Collinson, R. Rex, and G. Stanton, Lady Margaret Beaufort and her professors of divinity at Cambridge, 1502–1649 (2003)


  • BL, copy letters, Add. MS 46367
  • BL, Harley MS 418
  • BL, Lansdowne MSS 2, 3, 104, 980, 1236
  • BL, Royal MS 16 C.ix
  • CCC Cam., MSS 102, 104
  • King's Cam., Mundum ledger books, 1547–53
  • TNA: PRO, state papers, domestic, Edward VI, SP 10


  • portrait, 1545–1550, Ombersley Court, Worcestershire
  • portrait, 1550–1555, priv. coll.
  • attrib. L. Leoni, medallion, 1555, BM [see illus.]
  • attrib. L. Leoni, medallion, copies, NPG, King's Cam.
  • Passe, line engraving (after portrait by unknown artist, 1550–1555), BM, NPG; repro. in H. Holland, Herōlogia Anglica … (1620)

Wealth at Death

lands valued at £308 11s. p.a.; plate valued at £666 13s. 4d.; jewels £533 6s. 8d.; £400 in household goods: TNA: PRO, C 66/917, mm. 7–10 (13 April 1557); BL, Lansdowne MS 4, fol. 153r

Page of
J. S. Brewer, J. Gairdner, & R. H. Brodie, eds., , 23 vols. in 38 (1862–1932); repr. (1965)
Page of
National Portrait Gallery, London
Page of
private collection
Page of
Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
Page of
Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research
Page of
British Library, London
Page of
Page of
, new ser., 46 vols. (1890–1964)
Page of
King's College, Cambridge
Page of
British Museum, London
Page of
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Page of
S. T. Bindoff, ed., , 3 vols. (1982)
Page of
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)